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Contentious Negotiations Lie Ahead As Rockland Green Aims To Take Over Animal Shelter Jan. 1

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County Exec Ed Day Says County Involvement With Animal Shelter Ends December 31, But Will Not Hand Shelter To Rockland Green Unless Authority Has A Contract With Qualified Operator

By Tina Traster

Rockland Green hopes to take over operations at Hi-Tor Animal Shelter in Pomona on Jan. 1 but can only do so if it has an agreement in place with Hi-Tor Animal Shelter, or another qualified operator.

The board of Hi-Tor and Rockland Green (the former County Solid Waste Management Authority) have begun negotiations but it is unclear whether the two sides can reach terms over funding for the shelter and delineations of power. Hi-Tor is asking for upward of $1.3 million in annual fees from Rockland Green, which is effectively acting as a consortium of the five town supervisors who have the legal obligation to provide animal shelter services, compared to the roughly $333,000 the towns have been paying annually for the past five years through an intermunicipal contract between the towns and the county.

“We’re not handing the keys to Rockland Green if they don’t have an agreement in place,” said Ed Day

There is a perceived urgency on the part of Hi-Tor Board members to negotiate with Rockland Green because the county has signaled it is divesting itself from overseeing the animal shelter come the new year. The Hi-Tor board, which oversees operations and personnel at the shelter, is asking for a two-year contract from Rockland Green but what remains unclear is what supervisory, policy, or hiring powers Rockland Green is expecting to demand because they have been vague with board members to date, and have yet to submit a draft contract for Hi-Tor to review.

Additionally, Rockland Green has told the Hi-Tor board the authority will bill the county, but County Executive Ed Day said that made no sense.

“The five supervisors reportedly want the Solid Waste Management Authority to operate the current animal shelter and provide animal management services,” said Ed Day. “They also want Hi-Tor to be the entity that does this for them, securing Hi Tor’s survival as an entity. That choice by town supervisors severs the county’s involvement when our agreement with Hi-Tor expires December 31, 2022.”

Hi-Tor’s intermunicipal contract with the county expires Dec. 31. Board members believe they have no choice other than to negotiate with Rockland Green, and are afraid that if they don’t, they will be kicked out of the building where they have operated the shelter for 50 years. Several board members say they’ve been issued an ultimatum: negotiate or the gig is up.

However, Day says he doesn’t understand why they believe that to be true.

“We’re not handing the keys to Rockland Green if they don’t have an agreement in place,” said Day. “Come January 1, we will take action that secures the best interest of the animals. We will not let them suffer because leaders can’t make a decision.”

Hi-Tor board members feel as though they are being forced to negotiate with an entity that has essentially weakened the organization over the past year and has let it be known that it plans to build its own shelter that will be operated by the Hudson Valley Humane Society, according to Rockland Green’s Chairman Howard Phillips, who is also Town Supervisor of the Town of Haverstraw.

The Hi-Tor board has known for some time that Rockland Green is seeking to purchase a warehouse in Haverstraw to retrofit for a new shelter. But the board had believed they would remain in the Pomona facility and continue to run the shelter until a new one is built.

RCBJ spoke with a handful of board members in separate interviews; all said they wanted to remain anonymous.

No one on the Hi-Tor board believes this new marriage is one that’s meant to last. Phillips has publicly stated many times he plans to have the Hudson Valley Humane Society operate a new shelter once it’s built.

Last week, Ramapo Supervisor Michael Specht on his weekly WRCR radio show was opining on new names for the animal shelter.

“We are being used,” said a board member. “We are a placeholder. Once they are established, we are nothing. Maybe we’ll get two years. Maybe not. But this is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

In meetings in recent days, board members say they have been told by Rockland Green’s Executive Director Jerry Damiani that Rockland Green wants to “work together” and “partner with the shelter” and help make the shelter a better place. He has also told board members that Rockland Green will be stepping in on Jan. 1 to operate the shelter as though this was settled business, according to several board members.

But board members say no specifics have been spelled out, and they feel as though they are being told to get in bed with the enemy.

“These players have spent a year undermining Debbie, doing massive damage to the shelter, undermining our volunteers and donor base,” said a board member who asked not to be named. “Donations are in the toilet because of the lawsuit and all the things certain officials have said publicly. And now we’re thrown in bed with them? It’s nuts.”

Criminal charges brought against Board President Debbie DiBernardo by the Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Walsh were dropped on the eve of trial by prosecutors two weeks ago. The Hi-Tor “kitten” case accusing the animal shelter president of offering false information to the county left many wondering how such a case ever rose to the level of a criminal indictment.

But over the course of nearly a year, at least a couple of town officials, including Town of Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann and Phillips repeatedly talked about the “criminal investigation” and the failings of the shelter even though neither had sat down with board officials to examine the state of the operation, according to board members.

Rockland Green set its sights on Hi-Tor more than a year ago. Initially it sought approvals from the Rockland County Legislature to amend its charter to include animal management. Then, and at many steps along the way, officials and taxpayers wanted to understand Rockland Green’s plan but the public authority has never provided a single specific document that details how it would run a shelter, nor has it proffered a business plan or been clear as to how the finances would work.

RCBJ has FOILed Rockland Green for any information regarding the search for a shelter location but has been stonewalled.

Earlier this year, plans to build a new shelter were scuttled by the Rockland County Legislature when it tabled a vote on funding. Subsequently, Phillips has said Rockland Green is in active negotiations and has two appraisals in hand on 427 Beach Road in Haverstraw, a built-on-spec warehouse that’s on the market for $4.2 million.

Hi-Tor board members are demanding answers before they sign a contract.

“We’ve asked “What’s your role?” and we’ve not had any answers,” said a board member. “We are not going forward until we have answers. Rockland Green says it wants a good faith cooperative agreement but where’s the plan? They don’t have their act together.”

For the past five years, Hi-Tor has contracted with the county, which in turn, has collected fees from the towns to support the shelter. Orangetown Supervisor Teresa Kenny pulled out of a five-year contract with the county a couple of years ago, and contracts with Hudson Valley Humane Society for dog services. The contract has paid Hi-Tor about $330,000 annually from the towns; the shelter has relied on donors to keep the shelter’s nearly $1 million annual financial obligations afloat.

But now, with donations down, costs skyrocketing, and wage increases, the board plans to ask Rockland Green to fund the shelter at roughly $1.3 million annually reflecting its actual cost to run. The board is seeking a two-year commitment.

It is unclear whether Rockland Green will agree to the $1.3 million in funding. What is also not known is where the money is going to come from because board members have not received any clarification on these questions. Towns for the past five years have included a budget line item in their annual budgets for Hi-Tor. For example, Clarkstown paid $111,000 annually for shelter services. Haverstraw paid less than $40,000 annually. It is unclear how Rockland Green will pay for the operation and who will be taxed and how to cover the additional costs.

Hi-Tor board members say that despite asking questions, they do not know if Rockland Green intends to insert itself into the day-to-day operations, policy decisions, or hiring.

“The board is scrambling to figure out what to do,” said a board member.

In other news, Rockland County Legislator Charles Falciglia, who joined the board last month, has resigned.

RCBJ reached out to Rockland Green’s Damiani for comment, but he did not return our email. Rockland Green will hold its next public meeting on Nov. 17 at 5 pm. The Authority usually meets in the Town of Clarkstown’s town hall but those who are interested in attending should check on the meeting location.